Clichéd encounters of the Spielberg kind

By paying loving homage to the movie-making era of ET, Super 8 only flags up its own lack of magic.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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The old cliché that every story has already been told seems as pertinent as ever in Hollywood. A quick glance at the forthcoming releases reveals a bevy of rehashes, from Sherlock Holmes 2 to the upcoming Footloose remake. But Super 8 is different. It doesn’t simply try to rehash; no, it attempts to reinvent the Spielberg formula for a new generation. Yet despite incorporating all the elements which made Spielberg’s early movies so great, Super 8’s endless references to these classics of family cinema only underlines its inability to measure up.

Written and directed by JJ Abrams, Super 8 tells the story of 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) who, while helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a zombie flick on Super 8 millimeter film, witnesses a train crash which both releases a mysterious monster from one of the carriages and launches Joe into a classically Spielbergian adventure. Over its 112 minutes Joe strives to woo the girl of his dreams (Elle Fanning), discover the secret of the train’s cargo and, when he has the time, help finish Charles’s movie.

In the past few years the name Steven Spielberg seems only ever to appear after the words ‘Executive Producer’, as if nowadays he’s little more than a rubber stamp. However, in a film paying such obvious homage to Spielberg, his presence on the production staff is more than token. Spielberg’s involvement serves as a validation of Super 8’s blatant plagiarism. Because plagiarism is what it is. Everything, from the smalltown US setting to the BMXs Joe and his friends race around on, harks back to Spielberg’s action-adventure opuses Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET the Extra-Terrestrial.

Spielberg’s stamp of approval also gives Abrams the space to employ this mode of film-within-a-film storytelling, denoted by the title, in a way that is unabashedly self-aware. There is absolutely nothing here which we haven’t seen before, and Abrams knows it. Even Joe’s tousled, mousey-brown mop makes him a dead ringer for Elliott, ET’s 10-year-old protagonist. Yet it is these knowing nods to Abram’s influences which allow the viewer to see past Super 8’s lack of originality and enjoy it for what it is: a vehicle to relive those bygone moments of movie magic.

The boys’ persistence in making their film, despite the deaths and disappearances all around them, draws a smile even after the most fearsome set pieces. Only 24 hours after they narrowly escaped death at the train station, Charles and his crew rush, monster make-up in hand, back to the crash sight, hoping that the backdrop will give the film the ‘production values’ Charles is seeking.

Moments like this indicate that this is a film not to be taken too seriously. Yet tongue-in-cheek nostalgia is not enough to sustain the entire movie, as becomes painfully clear halfway through. Then, with more and more townsfolk having disappeared, the zombie film is postponed and, with it, the loving homage ceases. From there on in, the plot descends into one all-too-familiar setpiece after another. And the moment Super 8 begins to take its own story seriously, it becomes the very thing it was trying to escape: being merely derivative.

It doesn’t help that while the setpieces are big and visually stunning, the pastiche which opens the film creates a barrier between the viewer and the action. The sense that it is all one big in-joke, full of film-buff allusions and references, makes it hard to really care about the fate of Joe and his friends. So although Super 8 is well acted and has decent dialogue, you find it hard to believe in either young Joel Courtney or Elle Fanning when, at the back of your mind, you know that they are not so much characters as ironic nods to a filmmaking past.

The regurgitative approach to filmmaking Hollywood that has employed for the past few decades has left a creative vacuum. Whereas the likes of Close Encounters and ET made mainstream film an artistic medium, they seemed to prepare the way for a long chain of bad remakes. These attempts at giving the audience more of what they want has only left us pining for those old movies all the more. Super 8 may be a trip down memory lane, but it still struggles with this vicious cycle: it delights because of what it reminds us of, but fails to tell its own story.

Tom Slater is a writer and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his blog here.

Super 8 is on general release. Watch the trailer:

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